Hallmarks of Successful Solo Practitioners


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In this terrible economy, lots of recent (and future) graduates are considering going solo as way to practice law. I have been fortunate to work among a number of successful solo practitioners, and there are some hallmarks of success.

Willingness to do anything. Most of the solos I know are just getting off the ground, and most of them do not turn down work. They might want to do consumer law, but they will draft a will, or represent someone in a minor criminal case. Doing what you love is important, but so is paying rent.

Find a support system. Whether you office share with other solos or contribute to an email list of solo attorneys, find some way to bounce ideas off other attorneys. Truth be told, most of the time your gut is right, but it takes some time to believe it. Becoming part of a community will also create referral opportunities to keep you on your feet.

Patience. It is unlikely a $100,000 product liability case will fall into your lap during your first month practicing. For most solos it takes at least 6 months before business is coming in regularly. Staying focused and dedicate with no clients is tough, but persistence is key.

(photo: Todo-Juanjo)


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  • I agree that new lawyers starting out will typically need to take on more practice areas than they might like – at least for a while. Even if you narrow your practice later on, it’s valuable to have broader experience in legal problem solving. Turning down certain cases is a vital skill, however, even early in a career. Patience and persistence are indeed important. This includes developing networking and marketing skills – especially during any time not spent on case work.

  • Todd Hendrickson

    I’m very skeptical of the lead advise in this post. I started out in a large law firm, transitioned to a smaller firm and after about 5 years started a small partnership. I’ve been completely solo for the last 10 years. I’ve been in practice in either a small firm or solo for over 18 years.
    One of the hardest lessons to learn was to NOT take anything that came in the door. While I understand the need for revenue, you can actually lose money trying to figure out how to handle something you aren’t prepared to do, and you risk liability for doing it wrong. Concentrate your practice in two, or at most, three areas and know those areas well. Market to those areas. One of those will become your true specialty. I started off practicing personal injury, family law and business litigation. For the last 10 years my practice has been concentrated in medical malpractice and it was the best decision I could have made.

  • Randall Ryder

    I have seen new solos reluctantly take a case, discover they like that practice area, and form their new practice around that area of law. That said, I agree that at a certain point, you need to learn how to turn down certain cases.

  • Randall Ryder

    @ Todd – As you note, new solos should focus their marketing on a couple practice areas. Along those lines, taking different types of cases off the bat can help with both revenue and marketing. You raise a good point about cost v. gain and I think there are obvious limits to the types of cases a new solo should accept.

  • Excelent article, as usual. I’ve a question: Do you recomend, to a newbie solo, work part of the day in another job, to cover the bills? You’ve put the example of six months of time till business began to run, but I think it’s a bit optimist, specially on this times.


  • I don’t think it matters whether you go solo full-time or not, just don’t half-ass it.

  • Randall Ryder

    I think diving right in forces you to find work. That said, if you feel more comfortable (and need the income), I think working part-time is just fine.

  • I couldn’t disagree more. Marketing is one thing, but practicing law is another. It is not only malpractice but incredibly selfish and unethical to take cases that you are not prepared to handle. There is no such thing as “a minor criminal case.” If you are not experienced in criminal defense, you should not be taking a client’s money to handle a criminal case! The same goes for wills or family law or anything else, but especially with criminal law, the consequences are incredibly serious. You should be experienced in whatever areas of law you want to pursue before you go solo.

    • @Ruth Ann:

      Obviously, if your representation would result in malpractice you shouldn’t take a case.

      However, your conclusion that all new areas of law for an attorney are “unethical” is completely absurd. Lawyers (by passing their state’s bar exam) are by definition qualified generalists, whether there is an area of law they are particularly expert in or not. The idea that attorneys shouldn’t be willing to learn new practice areas is easily one of the more destructive pieces of advice a recent grad or new solo could possibly hear.

  • Thanks for the answers…

  • @Manuel If you can get a part-time job that will allow you the flexibility to cater to client matters as they come up, then definitely do it. The rule of thumb I heard over and over again when I started was that it takes 3 years to really determine whether a business is going to be successful. That will certainly be true for a new solo and even once good cases start coming in, there will be dry periods. A new solo needs either a nest egg, another job, or a spouse with a good job (and health insurance!) to weather the tough periods.

    In the debate between “take anything that comes in” and “focus on a couple of areas,” there is a reasonable middle ground: be willing to take anything in the one or two practice areas you have chosen to focus in. If you want to do civil litigation, its okay to take an appeal from conciliation court to district court in a $5,000 matter because you will learn something, even though you won’t get paid. Same for a criminal attorney who takes on a defense of a petty misdemeanor, or writing a lease for a LL who seems like he or she only has 49 cards in her deck. But if you’re focussing your energy on family law, don’t start drafting an easement for a farmer your father went to grade school with. The cases you have no idea what to do with are the ones that are neglected and that’s not the type of experience you are looking for.